This article is the second installment in a 3-part series on law firm staff coordination by Megan Zavieh, Esq. Read Part I here.
As lawyers, it’s easy to fall into certain traps. Among the most common are that we’re lawyers first and business people second, even when running small firms, and that we must do everything ourselves if it’s going to be done right.
These two fallacies can be the downfall of a small practice. The lawyer can’t be the only one pressing ahead with the legal work and the business of the firm. That is called a true solo practice, and its growth potential is definitively limited by the capacity of the single individual to create and manage the work.
Delegate to Increase Capacity
Delegating work to a support team increases the capacity of the firm. It’s elementary school math. If each individual in a firm has eight work hours per day, how many hours of work can be completed by one person? How many hours of work can be completed by two people?
Lawyers loathe to delegate will frequently object that it takes as long to explain to another person how to do a task as it does for the lawyer to do it herself. While this may be true the first or even the second time that the lawyer delegates the task, the idea is that the third time through the thousandth time, the lawyer need expend zero energy or time on the task. So, the investment of time in teaching another person to do the task has an unlimited ROI.
The first delegated task is likely the hardest. There is a tremendous mental and emotional hurdle to get over when you begin to delegate, which seems especially true the longer you have been handling all of the work yourself. True solos making their first hire are great examples of this obstacle.
The other hurdle is that if you’ve never delegated before, you may honestly not know how to do it.
So, start small. Pick a task that is either easily explained, so it is a simple one to teach someone, or is a tremendous emotional or time drain. Perhaps this is answering the phone, or posting on social media, or something as simple as scanning paper documents into your electronic files and sending the paper to be shredded.
After identifying the task, write out exactly what you do when you perform the task, so you can explain it to someone else. This should include every little step – from “open Word” to “save file as”. Writing out the process by which you complete the task will give the person to whom you are delegating clear instructions.
Sit down with the person you’re delegating to and explain the task in minute detail. Make sure they understand exactly what you expect the end result to be, and how you achieve that result.
Then, let the other person do their job. This may be the hardest piece of delegating. As lawyers, we’re so wired into making sure everything is done exactly to our specifications that we often forget that the people around us are competent to perform their own work. Once the work is assigned, let them do their jobs.
The flip side of letting people do their jobs is ensuring that the quality remains where you need it to be. It is important to note that this does not necessarily mean exactly the you would have done it if you’d done it yourself. There needs to be some leeway for the work to be done a bit differently than if you had done it yourself, so long as it continues to meet the required standards.
Then give your support feedback. As the reviewer, we often hesitate to give constructive criticism, but in truth people crave it. We want to know how to improve, we want to please the people around us who count on our work, and we can’t do that without feedback.
Since this can be difficult to do, schedule time with the people working with you to give feedback. Make this a standing appointment that you do not cancel. Also, enforce a rule that you must give one piece of constructive criticism and they must ask one question. Even though there may be times when you have to dig deep to find something to talk about, it forces a conversation to happen. Once you get your forced feedback in the open, you may find it more natural to say what you really think and were afraid to acknowledge.
Let it Snowball
Once you begin the delegation process, you may find it addictive. The increased capacity of your firm is self-reinforcing. If you have two lawyers who can now actually work on legal work 6-8 hours per day instead of taking time for administrative and business development tasks that you have delegated, profits will increase, work-life balance will improve, and your team will grow.
A great way to identify more tasks to delegate is to track your own time for a week or two. Track not just billable tasks, but everything you do. It sounds tedious, but it’s worth it. If your goal is to reduce the number of items on your plate, determine how many tasks you’e performing could easily be done by someone else on your team. If your goal is to free up the most time possible, look for the most time-consuming tasks.
Consider the skills of your team members, too. Which tasks have a well-suited person to take them on? This is not the point at which you should be having to hire more staff. Let that wait until you have utilized your existing team to their full capacity and still have more work to delegate.
As you push the work out to your team, the load grows lighter and your firm’s ability to deliver excellent legal work and client service expands.
Megan Zavieh earned her J.D. at age 21 from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) in 1999, graduating Order of the Coif. After clerking at the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York, she went on to practice securities litigation at three top firms in the New York area. In 2009, Megan began working with members of the California State Bar who were facing disciplinary action. She has provided full scope representation and associated counsel assistance at all stages of the disciplinary process. From 2011 to the present, Megan has maintained her California ethics practice from physical locations around the globe, including Sydney, Australia and Atlanta, Georgia. Using the magic of technology, Megan’s virtual practice has taken on a nationwide scope. Megan is admitted to practice before the state courts in California, New York, New Jersey and Georgia, several Federal District courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and the United States Supreme Court.